Organizational Wellness

How HR Can Identify, Address, and Avoid Hostile Work Environments

Jun 1, 2023
Last Updated May 23, 2024

Employees don’t tend to stick around in a hostile work environment. More than a third of workers have left a job because of unresolved harassment, according to a 2021 survey conducted by AllVoices.

As a human resources professional, it’s essential to know what constitutes a hostile work environment, how to recognize one, and how to correct it. This can help you prevent staff turnover and preserve your company’s reputation.

What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

A hostile work environment is any workplace where discriminatory or harassing behavior puts employees in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation.

This can include unwelcome conduct or comments about an employee’s race, religion, or any other protected characteristics, which include:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Color
  • Gender
  • Genetic information
  • Religion
  • Race
  • National origin
  • Pregnancy

Such offensive conduct can come from supervisors, coworkers, customers, and vendors. Incidents of workplace discrimination are sadly not uncommon — the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 61,331 discrimination charges in 2021 (the most recent year for which data is available).

What Constitutes a Hostile Work Environment?

Not all offensive behaviors and petty slights amount to a hostile work environment. Specific legal criteria must be met for a workplace environment to qualify as hostile, according to the EEOC.

Whether a situation meets the legal criteria for a hostile workplace can depend on the frequency and severity of the behavior. For example, one sexist comment on its own doesn't make a workplace hostile, but if someone repeatedly makes these types of comments, it can. By contrast, it only takes one instance of sexual assault to create a hostile work environment.

Here are some of the behaviors that can create this issue.

Harassment Based on Sex or Race

An example of sexual harassment in the workplace may take the form of a supervisor or coworker making unwelcome advances. This can include inappropriate physical contact, verbal comments that are sexually suggestive or demeaning, display of sexually explicit material, propositioning for sexual favors, or asking inappropriate personal questions.

Using racial slurs is never acceptable, but harassment based on race isn't always so obvious. Making demeaning, insulting, or belittling comments about an employee's race or ethnicity is also harassment. This could include statements referring to an employee by a racial stereotype, making jokes about their culture, or mocking the way they dress or speak.


Illegal workplace discrimination can take many forms. It could look like an employer refusing to hire someone based on their religion, sexual orientation, or national origin. Alternatively, it could include refusing to promote a qualified individual, paying them less for the same job compared to other employees, or denying them access to training that could help them advance.

Victimization or Ridiculing

Some examples of ridiculing are mocking someone’s religious faith or sexual orientation, playing "pranks" that result in embarrassment and frustration, and targeting people for public humiliation. The behavior doesn’t have to occur on company grounds — or even in person — for an employee to make a hostile work environment claim. Workplace bullying can also take place in remote environments and on social media. If the action interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job or makes them fear for their physical or emotional safety at work, it can create a hostile environment.

Consistent Aggressiveness

Not to be confused with assertiveness, consistent aggressiveness can take the form of a supervisor or coworker who regularly yells or intimidates other employees. This form of aggression may involve intimidating language, raised voices, threats, derogatory comments, and insults. It can also include physical forms of intimidation, such as aggressive body posturing, invading another person's personal space, or physical contact.

Signs of a Hostile Work Environment

Workplace harassment doesn’t always get reported, so it's helpful to recognize the signs of a hostile environment. Eighteen percent of employees said they have either experienced or witnessed harassment but did not report it, according to the AllVoices survey.

A few indicators of a hostile work environment are:

  • Fear and apprehension
  • A decline in work performance
  • Employee burnout
  • Harassment complaints

Taking action to prevent a hostile work environment fosters a safe space where employees can be safe and productive, and prevents organizations from facing costly lawsuits.

What to Do About Harassment at Work

The first step when faced with any formal complaint about hostile work environments is to conduct an HR investigation. This inquiry into exactly what happened and who was involved informs what action should be taken. If the complaint is found to be valid, how to handle it will depend on the behavior and the perpetrator.

If one employee is telling offensive jokes, for example, it may be sufficient to issue a formal reprimand. A repeat offender may require a more serious response, including up to termination of employment. 

Disciplining leadership can be more complicated, but it is vital. Business leaders are bound by the same anti-harassment laws as any other employee and toxic leadership negatively impacts an entire organization. As with any staff member, speaking with them about how their behavior is impacting the company (and opening it up to legal liability) is a great place to start. If your conversations do not prompt change, you can elevate the issue to the company’s board of directors for a formal response.

How to Prevent a Hostile Work Environment

The best way to protect your company and its employees from a hostile work environment is to prevent one from ever developing. Should it happen, having a comprehensive policy in place can at least make it more straightforward to deal with.

Establish a Company Policy on Harassment

Creating a comprehensive company policy on harassment is key to preventing and addressing a hostile work environment. You can outline what constitutes inappropriate behavior, the consequences of such behavior, and how employees can report it. Try to be as specific as possible, so there's no room for confusion, and make sure you get buy-in from leadership on the policy you develop.

Encourage a Culture of Open Communication

Open communication should start from the top down. Effective leaders try to create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up if they have concerns or questions about any workplace policies or procedures.

You can start by sharing company objectives and providing regular updates, as well as soliciting and acting on team feedback. When employees come to you with concerns, you can follow up to let them know how they are being addressed.

Create an Anonymous Reporting System

Many employees won't speak up when they see inappropriate behavior (no matter how open and healthy your company culture is). They may not want to be seen as a whistleblower or risk illegal up for retribution for doing so. Consider creating safe channels for employees to register their concerns, such as anonymous email boxes or a hotline where people can report instances of harassment.

Invest in Employees' Emotional and Physical Wellbeing

Beyond the potential legal repercussions, the effects of a hostile work environment can seriously dampen employee morale, productivity, and overall job satisfaction. Employees who experience or witness hostile workplace behavior can suffer from increased stress, anxiety, depression, and even damage to their physical health.

In addition to a safe workplace free from harassment, a workplace wellness initiative can improve your employees' physical and mental health. A happy and healthy workforce is not only more productive and engaged, but has better retention, lower healthcare costs, and is more productive.

Are you interested in implementing a wellness program at your organization? Talk to one of our Wellbeing Specialists today!

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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